The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Opinion: Commuters are put at risk by the return of in-person learning

Safety measures on campus don’t matter if you’re already exposed
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Using public transit puts both commuters and non-commuters at risk. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
Using public transit puts both commuters and non-commuters at risk. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

For the first two years of my degree, I commuted to UTSC five days a week by bus. Taking the TTC into campus was never what I would describe as a pleasant experience. For my first year, I had to take three different buses and I spent over an hour getting to UTSC. In my second year, the 905 Eglinton East Express bus was created, and I was thankful that I only had to take two buses and spend 50 minutes getting to campus. 

Even with the new express service, the buses were always standing-room-only unless I was commuting at ridiculously off-peak hours. I remember the many times I had to wait patiently for the 905 at the intersection of Midland Avenue and Eglinton Avenue, watching two or three buses full of students pass me by before one arrived that was empty enough to board.

When COVID-19 caused classes to be moved online in my third year, I was all too happy to avoid the crowdedness, calamity, and cost of commuting to class. There were certainly negative aspects of the pandemic — the isolation, Zoom fatigue, and the anxiety I felt about leaving the house, seeing friends or family, and possibly infecting vulnerable loved ones. 

However, avoiding the long trips to and from campus was definitely a positive. Even though UTSC kept my classes online for one and a half years, I never once missed taking the TTC.

When U of T announced that we would be returning to in-person learning by the end of February, I was stunned. My first thought was, “I haven’t been on the TTC since the start of the pandemic — do people even always wear masks on the bus?” My second thought was, “How could school officials be fine with putting students who commute to campus in this risky situation?” 

The majority of students at UTSC live off campus and have to take public transit to attend in-person courses. The lack of enforcement of mask mandates and reduced services offered by the TTC make taking the bus to campus a concerning prospect. U of T’s requirement that students attend in-person classes is essentially a requirement to take crowded public transit routes where other passengers may be unmasked and unvaccinated. If these buses were standing-room-only before the reduction in services brought on by COVID-19-related staffing shortages, what will they be like now?

Although there are indications that the latest COVID-19 wave may have peaked in Toronto, on January 20, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said that it is “too early to confirm” whether we have seen the worst of this wave and that “for now, we must remain vigilant.” So why are some faculties forcing students to commute as soon as February 7?

In an email, U of T claimed that students have communicated “how important physical presence on campus is to them – both for their academic work and for their mental wellbeing.” But as a student, I wasn’t asked whether physical presence was important to me. I’d even gone so far as to email the Dean of Student Wellness’ office to voice my concerns about returning to campus. 

For students who are worried about the health and wellness of themselves and their families, the university’s announcement came as a major disappointment. Even if U of T offers “enhanced safety measures,” including mask and vaccine mandates, students and staff that commute to UTSC by public transit are being put at risk every time they travel to and from campus. U of T doesn’t seem to care that commuters could easily be exposed to the virus, and that students and staff travelling to U of T from all over the GTA could cause outbreaks on campus that would easily be prevented if students were given an option to continue learning remotely. 

Would you be comfortable going to class and sitting beside someone who was forced to commute in these conditions? I use public transit, and even I wouldn’t be okay with that. Commuters come from all over the city, take various connecting vehicles, and could potentially be exposed dozens of times each time they take the TTC. U of T’s hasty return to campus imposes unacceptable risks to the health and safety of commuters, as well as to their peers, professors, and families.

Katherine E. Todd is a fourth-year student studying political science and public law at UTSC.